Link to recording of the sermon
2021 Rosh Hashanah day 1
The Firing Squad of the Universal Yentas
I want to tell you of an open and shut case that once came before a Rabbi.
Chaim and Yankel came to court to plead their case before the Rabbi. .Court, in those days, was nothing other than the Rabbis study, and, in the room adjoining, that is the kitchen, is the Rabbi's wife, who, while plucking chickens, was always listening in as the Rabbi's unofficial chief advisor.
Chaim opens his case." On the fifth of this month, I bought from Yankel a tool, etc, etc, etc".
The Rabbi listens seriously, looks down into his beard, ponders, and declares, "It seems to me that the facts indicate that Chaim is right."
"But Rabbi, "Yankel replies in defense, "On the fifth of this month when I sold Haim this tool, etc, etc, etc."
Again the Rabbi listens intently, ponders, and announces, "It seems to me that Yankel is right.'
At which point, the Rebbetzin sticks her head into the study and protests. "Wait a minute. How can both of them be right."
Again the Rabbi ponders and announces. "It seems to me that the Rebbetzin is also right."
Very often, when we have a quarrel with someone, or have to decide between two people arguing, we tend to think of the situation as an open and shut case. We forget to look at both sides of the issue, and like the Rabbi of the story, we often pronounce judgement at the first crack, without looking at the other side . It can also truly happen, despite the Rebbetzin’s protest, that both sides can be right.
In truth we all know that judging people's actions or character is not restricted to Rabbis in the synagogue or judges in court.
We can certainly say that we have gone through a pandemic over the past few years, not the viral COVID-19, but the “ verbal” kind, sent viral by text, tweat, email, tik tok, whatever platform you like.
We get caught in a rush to judgement. I have no need to belabor what has been so much written about- that we live in an echo chamber, in which even a small whisper bounces off the walls of one end of the earth to the other, without end.
Let me give you just a simple example, this one, no so bitter or nasty, but still appropriate. At the Olympics this summer, Simone Bail, the famous gymnast, backed out of the competition in the last minute, for a variety of reasons that involved a very risky maneuver. Within seconds, the “chatter boxes” were on, either that she was some great saint for declining or a traitor to her team for declining. Suddenly, everyone in the world became an expert on athletes, the dangers of the Games, the traumas of women, traumas of race. Everyone knew exactly what and why, when, in truth, no one knew, except for Simone Bail ! I can only say that I am happy for her that she decided to go back to the competition and performed very well and I hope that she goes on to fulfill her dreams.
Fortunately, she escaped major damage, not just from somersaults, but even more, from what I would call, the firing squad of the “universal yentas.”
You know the Yenta- as in Fiddler’s Yenta-the matchmaker- of course, in her business, she must know everyone, have the inside scoop on everyone, and she must render judgement on everyone. In the past year, the American equivalent has been the Karen- I really apologize to all the women named Karen, and I want to be fair- I use Yenta equally for men and for women in our modern era.
But it’s not a funny song in Fiddler. In our day ,it has become far more malevolent than this- people are fired, books are banned, professors are boycotted, careers are ruined. This is happening, not to the Yahoos and Rednecks and Hicks , but to stalwarts of the well-educated, liberals, who are lined up in front of the firing squad of the Universal Yentas who present themselves as even more Catholic than the Pope( pardon my mixed metaphors).
I go back to the Olympics this summer. Here’s from one source:
Bill Maher, who is hardly your typical MAGA-hatter, slammed cancel culture at the Tokyo Olympics, going after a “woke” attitude at the Games.
Maher pointed to several ousters that occurred leading up to the Games, which he called a “purge.” He gave several examples,
“This is called a purge. It’s a mentality that belongs in Stalin’s Russia,” Maher said. “How bad does this atmosphere we are living in have to get before the people who say cancel culture is overblown admit that it is in fact an insanity that is swallowing up the world?”
Maher continued by saying his politics have not changed but that “I am reacting to politics that have.”
This is another example of how the woke invert the very thing that used to make the liberals liberal. Snitches and b******? That's not being liberal."
( Maher specifically took issued with the idea of cultural appropriation."Of all the violations of the woke penal code, cultural appropriation just might be the dumbest of all," he said."Most of human history is a horror story, but the good parts are about different groups coming together and sharing. It's sort of the whole point of the Olympics.""Newer doesn't automatically mean better, this new idea that each culture must remain in its own separate silo is not better and it's not progress," he said."In fact, it's messing with one of the few ideas that still makes this melting point called America great.") https://www.newsweek.com/bill-maher-bemoans-cancel-culture-surrounding-woke-olympics-1614936
The ancient Biblical sceptic, the Bill Maher of his day, Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, said, “Mah Shehaya, hu sheyiheh”, What was, will be in the future too. He even knew of twitter before there was a tweet:” For a bird of the air may carry the utterance, And a winged creature may report the word.” ( 10:20)
Two thousand years ago, our sages knew that a rumor whispered in Jerusalem was heard very quickly in Rome- and that was at a time that the word could spread, by ship, at best, 6 miles per hour.
Today, the rumor spreads before you even hit the send button! The Universal Yentas never disappeared. They just picked up speed.
We know very well that people have engaged in “ snap judgements” and a rush to slander. The Rabbis called in “the triple”, because, of slander, they said, It kills three times- It kills the target of slander, it comes back to kill the one who started the slander, and eventually, it comes back to kill the by-stander who was only too eager to spread the virus.
We don’t have to be among the “ woke” crowd to do this. We don’t need to be on a social media device. We do this on our own, in our heads. We rush to judgement very easily. We all fall for our own off-the-cuff decisions and we quickly pre-judge others--" too noisy", "shifty," "untrustworthy"; or, just the opposite , we may naively entrust our fortunes to a stranger on first impressions alone.
To hire or fire a worker--To pass or fail a student--Even to trust or distrust the faithfulness of a spouse.
Entire futures can be made or crushed based on our judgements.
So , what should we do before we rush to send out our invectives, or hit the “ unfriend” or “ Thumbs down button”, before we become another nagging Yenta.
The Torah gives us three principles on which to base our judgements: Love Your neighbor as yourself; You shall not pervert your judgement by favoritism; and you shall not hate your brother in your heart nor hold a grudge.
V’ ahavta Le Reacha Kamocha--Love your neighbor as yourself. As Rabbi Akiba declared--zeh klal gadol batorah--That is the general principal of the Torah.
Our traditional commentaries provide the deeper meaning. How is it possible to love another person as we love ourselves? That is, after all , a command to have a feeling, and feelings cannot be commanded, only an action, a deed, can be insisted upon. The Hebrew word used for "as yourself" is " kamocha". Our Rabbis point out that “as yourself” does not tell you how you feel, but who your neighbor is. Your neighbor is- kamocha- as yourself, he or she is just like you, with all your qualities, and with all your faults. The language of that chapter in the Torah very clearly indicates, without any doubt, that it applies not just to our physical neighbor, or fellow Jew, but to the stranger as well.
What does "like you" mean?
If I have my struggles in life to deal with, then you do too. If you have struggles in life to deal with, the I do also. I must then act in a loving manner towards you, my neighbor, as we are both dealing with the same issues in life.
When we recognize that our neighbor is just as capable of good as we are, then it changes how we go through our day as we look at those around us.
The second principle is Lo Takiru panim bamishpat- You shall not show favoritism in judgement.
Judgement is not restricted to the courtroom. It is every day.
That's why our Rabbis in the Ethics of the Fathers advised- ' Dan et Kol Adam b Kaf Zechut-Judge everyone with the presumption of innocence. Our sages predated ,by two thousand years ,the great American principal that you are innocent unless proven guilty.
Hillel went one step further. Al Tadin et Havercha ad Sh’Tagia lim’komo-Don't judge your fellow till you have stood in his place. It is the Jewish equivalent of the Native American saying, “Don't judge your fellow till you have walked a mile in his moccasins.”
We all have our share of the rude clerk or the obstinate bureaucrat, who frustrates by not listening or attending to our needs. Again, we need to give the benefit of the doubt. Put yourself in that the other's shoes. Who knows what he may be going through-- after all, other people have trouble also- illness, disaster, financial debacles, family troubles. Al Tadin et Havercha--Don't judge your fellow until you have stood in his place.
The third principle of judgement is the follow up: Lo Tisna Ahicha be levavecha . "Don't hate your brother in your heart."
Revenge is sweet, we are told, but like sugar, it also causes decay and disease.
Many years back, I met the minister of the Methodist Church in uptown Whittier, He told me of his experience having lived for a few months in Jordan, not long after the Six-Day War. He had spent some time visiting a Jordanian army unit, and got to know one of the officers. Would there ever be a reconciliation with Israel, he asked the officer. The officer replied," Revenge that is twenty years old is but a suckling infant "
That’s what revenge is like. It lingers on--and it kills the one who bears it; just look at much of the Middle East today. God pity the poor people of Lebanon, or Syria, or Afghanistan.
To put a stop to our disastrous putting down of each other for the least faults, let us keep in mind these words, expressed on pieces of parchment 2000 years ago, and hidden in the Caves at the Dead Sea, in the writing of Ben Sira:
"Forgive your neighbor his wrongdoing; then for your sin will you be forgiven when you pray. Shall one man cherish anger against another, and yet ask healing from the Lord? Does he have no mercy on one like himself, and yet pray for his own sins?"
Think of it before you send the next tweet.
I will finish with this little ditty by an anonymous author a century ago, much in keeping with ben Sira of two millennia earlier that fits the message for this day:
There's so much good in the worst of us
and so much bad in the best of us
That it hardly becomes any of us
to talk about the rest of us."
The quote speaks for itself. No more universal Yentas, please. Slow down before you tweet and retweet. May we look and deal graciously with others, so that Heaven may look graciously upon us this year and every year. Amen.